India election hands Modi historic third term but BJP falls far short of winning majority

India’s prime minister set to lose parliamentary majority, and must rely on allies to form government

Maroosha Muzaffar
Wednesday 05 June 2024 11:39 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Narendra Modi has won a historic third consecutive term as India’s prime minister – but his victory was overshadowed by the failure of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win an expected outright majority, and a surprisingly strong performance by the largely discounted opposition.

Abhki baar 400 paar” – “This time, beyond 400 [seats]” – was the rallying cry during his campaign, articulating the party’s aim of dominating the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

It was an ambitious target but not an unreasonable one, after the BJP won two successive landslide victories in the 2014 and 2019 elections; in the latter, the BJP won 303 seats in its own right, contributing to a ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tally of more than 350 – nearly a two-thirds majority.

Follow our live updates on 2024 Indian elections.

Almost all exit polls suggested the BJP was close to achieving its aim. But in the event, Mr Modi’s party fell woefully short and will now be forced to rely on coalition partners to form a government. It could have major implications for how the world’s most populous country is run over the next five years.

With most constituencies counted, the ruling NDA had 295 seats and the opposition INDIA bloc’s tally stood at 230, a massive improvement from its showing in 2019. The NDA will still form the government, having crossed the majority threshold of 272 seats, and Mr Modi will stay on as prime minister. But political analysts said it was a “moral defeat” for the BJP and might just spell an end to the “politics of hate” that have defined Mr Modi’s decade in power.

“This was no ordinary election,” renowned left-wing political and social activist Harsh Mander told The Independent. “All Modi was offering was a project of hate. At a time when there is a jobs crisis, unprecedented inequalities, and severe climate challenges, a BJP landslide win would have meant that India slipped into very dark times.”

He said there was “a sense of relief” that the BJP had not won a clear majority. “A coalition government is better, as the BJP will have to rely on coalition partners to formulate any policy. There will be discussion, debate, and no one-man government.”

Mr Mander credited the opposition for putting up a spirited fight despite many challenges. “There was huge money-power. There was the use of all the state institutions against them.”

In advance of the election, federal agencies under Mr Modi’s government raided and jailed leading opposition politicians such as Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, and froze bank accounts held by the main opposition Congress party. At the same time, the BJP was revealed to have been the biggest beneficiary of a system of secret political donations, called Electoral Bonds, that was recently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

If not for the crackdown, Mr Mander argued, the INDIA bloc might have performed even better.

As results trickled in on Tuesday, it became clear that the BJP faced setbacks in several states, notably India’s largest, Uttar Pradesh, where the INDIA bloc, led by Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, was ahead in 43 of the 80 seats.

In West Bengal, an eastern state where the BJP had campaigned aggressively, the Trinamool Congress was ahead in 32 of the 42 seats.

In Maharashtra, the opposition was on course to secure 30 seats, while the BJP and its allies lagged with 17.

More remarkably, the BJP was trailing in at least 30 per cent of the seats it won in 2019, and some of its most prominent faces were staring at defeat.

Smriti Irani, the minister for women and child development, lost to Kishori Lal of Congress in Amethi, a prestige constituency she was vying to retain after wresting it from Rahul Gandhi, the face of the opposition, in 2019.

Prajwal Revanna, a lawmaker from BJP ally Janata Dal Secular who was arrested last week on sexual abuse charges, lost in the southern state of Karnataka.

Several factors contributed to the BJP’s struggles in these states and constituencies, Arati Jerath, a political analyst, told The Independent.

“There was a lot of attrition as far as the BJP was concerned, when you look at the ground reports,” she said. “They suggested that the BJP was not going to do well.”

And, unlike in previous elections, there was no singular national issue this time round. Key issues varied by state, reflecting caste dynamics, lack of enthusiasm among BJP and RSS workers, and concerns about unemployment.

“Honestly, what I am seeing in this entire election is unlike 2014 and 2019. There is no national vote,” she said. “It’s very much like what happened in 2004, which the BJP lost.

“The outcome was an aggregate of state elections. That is, I think, what we are seeing today. There was public anger, which exploded against the BJP.”

Supriya Shrinate of the Congress party told NDTV that the opposition’s performance in Uttar Pradesh, the heartland state that has been the bedrock of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics, was “a moral loss” for the ruling party.

Ms Jerath agreed. “If the BJP failed to secure a clear majority when the entire election campaign was centred around Modi, that is a clear moral defeat for the BJP.”

Manisha Priyam, a political observer, told The Independent that the result showed that “state-level interests and federal interests are very important and integral to the idea of India”.

Political scientist Gilles Verniers told Al Jazeera that the BJP “went from using Modi as the main argument to using him as the sole argument”.

“And that backfired.”

“This is a setback,” Mr Verniers argued, referring to the BJP. “The options now are to be more conciliatory and share power, or to double down on authoritarianism, which is the path they have taken over the past few years.”

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